Modesty is just one virtue of Air Force's surprising basketball team, which ended its season with a 22-6 record, ensuring it a postseason-tournament berth for the first time since 1962. Air Force hasn't even had a winning season since '78. One reason is its tough league the Mountain West Conference, dominated by teams like Utah and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Another major handicap: the Air Force places a height limit on recruits who want to become pilots, which eliminates most players over 6 ft. 8 in. (The actual measure is sitting height, which allows for some variation; the team's tallest player is 6 ft. 9 in.--smaller than most college big men.) The school must also persuade athletes to commit five years of postgraduate life to the military not exactly a lure to players with dreams of a pro career. Yet coach Joe Scott's patient pass-and-cut offense, a system he learned at Princeton as a player and an assistant coach, made up for these handicaps this year by yielding lots of wide-open lay-ups and three-point shots. Welch was a Mountain West co player of the year despite averaging just 11.2 points a game. Will Air Force continue to surprise in the postseason? Says guard Tim Keller, a junior: "Yes, sir."
College basketball players usually get e-mail from adoring teenage girls or trash-talking students from a rival school. So how does Nick Welch, star player at the Air Force Academy, feel when alums in Iraq send notes that say his team inspires their squadrons? "It's a great honor," says Welch. "But we have it easy. I have much more respect for what they're doing."